This week we’ve been connecting with Pieter Ghijsels who is an accessible tourism policy advisor with VisitFlanders, at a tourism office for Flanders-Brussels under the name Toerisme Vlaanderen. Pieter is a great believer in inclusive tourism and throughout his different career paths in journalism, graphics and now accessible tourism, he has made raising awareness an important part of his life. Below Pieter talks about disability tourism in his area and the feedback he has received from tourist visiting with a disability.
A survey among visitors of Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, Leuven and Mechelen (2017-2018) provides VisitFlanders with new insights in the profile of cultural value seekers. One question for every respondent was: “Do you, or somebody in your travel party, experience a disability that has an influence on the way you travel.” We received a positive reply from 141 respondents, that is 4% of the total number.
Four percent only? This seems a rather small portion, compared to the 15 to 20 percent of people with disabilities in our society, but the wording of the question results in a double limitation of the response. Visitors without an official disability, but who experience an inhibition, are likely to be disregarded, as well as anybody with a ‘real’ disability who finds its impact in the given context less important. But the question has the benefit of clarity: it focuses on a core category of visitors who have the clearest experience of the weaker and stronger points of our travel destination. A comparison of the global results with the responses from this segment will deliver the most information on travel profile differences.
The core group is an international mix, be it with more domestic respondents than in the general survey. It contains barely any non-European travellers. Air travel is still a serious obstacle. One striking difference between visitors with and without a relevant disability is age: the focus group is on average older than the general average (54 instead of 43 years old). About 70% of this group is in the 50+ category.
When naming three things that have encouraged them to come to Flanders, a few remarkable things come up. The segment with a travel-relevant disability is visiting relatives, friends or acquaintances (23% instead of 8% in general). Clearly, the presence of familiar faces makes the step smaller, especially if the trip was a present or included in a package (10%). As a travel destination, Flanders appeals more than average to this audience for its link to artists, art-related museums and attractions.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that “accessibility” is hardly a top-3 item in the general survey, but within the core category 22% does indicate accessibility in their shortlist. For 44% the question of reachability (getting there) is an important bonus, which confirms our initial remarks on air travel. Although ecological concerns are not necessarily their main reason for short-distance travelling, the visitor with a disability seems to be a forerunner of a global trend.
Based on this survey, we can’t say anything about accessibility and reachability as a reason to come to Flanders, but at least they are an important motivator to come. To-the-point communication and information about these factors reassure travellers that they will be able to enjoy a holiday in relative ease.
Speaking of information: unlike in the general image, we see a preference for analogue resources, like printed publications and word of mouth information. Among the digital resources the visitflanders.com website is equally important for people with and without travel-related disabilities. Other resources, however, like blogs or review sites score much lower. Before and during the trip, a disabled visitor will tend to look up information. Noteworthy: nearly 40% goes to a touristic visitors’ centre to ask for reliable information.
For accommodation, VisitFlanders has developed an A and A+ accessibility label system, combined with detailed descriptions. It’s encouraging to see how the full scope of accommodation types is used, regardless of accessibility needs (although cottages, that seldom obtain a label, are underrepresented). Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) like booking.com or Expedia are used much less than in general. There is one big exception, though. The only OTA on par with the general level is Airbnb. This is probably no coincidence, as this platform provides filters to search for specific accessibility requirements, unlike the other OTAs.
Appreciation of the holiday accommodation is higher than the general average. Most shackles in the value chain score remarkably well among the core group of people with (travel-relevant) disabilities. Still, the over-all score lags a bit behind (at least, less positive than in the total survey). Looking for an explanation, we find that the visitor with a disability gives the lowest score to “general accessibility”. With appreciation of accommodation, attractions, bars and restaurants and hospitality at least on par with the main average, we’ll have to find the less positive experiences elsewhere. Unfortunately, this survey doesn’t point out the exact problem. We do notice, however, that public space and transport are not in the evaluation. Compared to the general public, the core group finds more places too crowded and when visiting a historic city, they also take a tour more often, either with public transport, a horse and carriage or a guided tour by boat.
When asked what they have done in the last 24 hours, the core group has visited more often a museum, although the number of museums visited in a day is lower. Apparently, this group takes more time to visit a museum. Likewise, more time is spent on eating and drinking, and not only time! The respondents with a disability in this survey spend more money, especially on food, drinks and shopping. This is surprising, because the Russian and Chinese shoppers who enhance the score for the main survey are absent from the group of visitors with a disability. Still, the average disabled tourist spends 168 euro a day, which is arguably higher than the 151 euro per day in general. A higher budget resounds also in their higher appreciation for the value for money.
The survey results give an accurate image of the cultural tourist with a disability. He or she is an experienced traveller, aware of and interested in the cultural assets of their travel destination, and willing to spend more time and money than the average visitor. He or she has clear expectations and good skills to make their trip successful. This visitor is willing to show appreciation for any good experiences encountered, but has a critical eye on what’s missing. Requiring detailed and reliable information, the visitor with a disability will more often turn to official resources, like the local tourism administrations. Now, VisitFlanders and the art cities’ DMOs have everything they need to enhance the region’s quality as a hospitable and attractive travel destination for all.